Arsenal vs Aston Villa - FA Cup final preview: Arsene Wenger has chance to make history at Wembley - but is more interested in the future

Arsenal manager already planning ahead despite chance to make history by beating Aston Villa at Wembley

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The Independent Football

Arsène Wenger does not know where his FA Cup winners’ medals are. He has five – by Saturday night it could be six – and yet the medals themselves mean almost nothing to him. He is, as he loves to point out, a forward-looking manager, interested only in the next game and the next season, rather than what has happened before.

“I don’t know where they are,” Wenger admitted with a shrug. “If you ask me to show a medal of anything, I don’t know where they are.” He has given some away to charity and joked that “the guys who come and clean the house, they take them”.

There is a touch of pride there when Wenger says he is not a “collection man” and is “always focused on what is next”. He may well know that Jose Mourinho is a “collection man”, and has a special watch for each of the 22 trophies he has won stored away at home.

And so Wenger only admits to being very vaguely aware of what it will mean if Arsenal beat Aston Villa in Saturday’s FA Cup final. His sixth cup would make him the joint most successful manager in the competition’s history, alongside Aston Villa’s George Ramsey. Wenger’s first FA Cup final win was 17 years ago, but there were 33 years between Ramsey’s first (1887) and last (1920).

Wenger knew Ramsey’s name – “it shows you that it is not as easy as it looks” – but does not see Saturday as his chance to draw level. “I look at it as an end of a season,” he said. “Honestly, I don’t look at it in a personal way. Maybe I will if we win, but at the moment I just look.”

 

For all Wenger’s successes in this competition – and it is a remarkable record – there is no avoiding the fact that the highest points of his tenure have been the three title wins of 1998, 2002 and 2004.

Last year’s FA Cup win was very welcome, as would another one be. But they are not quite achievements on a par with the days when Wenger’s Arsenal sides were genuinely the best in the country.

That has to be where Arsenal want to return, and they are in a position to get there. This is no longer a club weighed down by paying off their stadium, as proved by the expensive signings of Mesut Özil and Alexis Sanchez.

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Alexis Sanchez

 

They can now keep their best players and they have a core, in defence and midfield, which they can build around. Arsenal, as ever, need a good summer, with good additions, and that has to start with a win on Saturday. But more should come from this well-balanced team.

In the history of the second half of Wenger’s Arsenal tenure, the 2014 final must be sen as a turning point. Arsenal were 2-0 down to Hull City after just eight minutes yet they scrapped their way back into the match, and won in extra-time. Had they lost, with Wenger’s new contract still unconfirmed, it is hard to imagine the cloud that would have descended over the club.

Even after Curtis Davies’ second goal, Wenger admitted that it could have got even worse. “It could have been 3-0 as [Kieran] Gibbs saved on the line,” he remembered. “I was thinking that it was a nightmare day. All the fans came full of hope and after 10 minutes we are 2-0 down. With the pressure on it was really a nightmare.”

It felt like a decisive moment in the modern history of the club but Santi Cazorla curled in a free-kick and Arsenal found a way.

“I was ready for a fight, ready to fight until the end,” Wenger said. “You know that you need a goal and certainly the free-kick of Santi Cazorla was very important. After that it was important to keep the players calm and not rush the game – just be patient, come back to 2-2.”

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Santi Cazorla curls in a superb free-kick to get Arsenal back into the game

 

Wenger said Arsenal “learnt a lot from last season” and they certainly seem more stable – especially psychologically – than they were last spring, when the drought was still ongong and Wenger’s new contract lay unsigned.

There may be a slight question mark over their Wembley performances – Arsenal were not much more fluent against Reading in their semi-final than they were against Wigan or Hull last season. That is cancelled out, though, by the fact that they have shown a better approach to big games, having beaten Manchester City and Manchester United this season, and avoided the dramatic collapses in other matches.

If Arsenal can defend better than Liverpool did in their semi-final then they should win, and with Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny looking solid again they have a good chance. The big question is in their attacking positions, and the roles of Theo Walcott and Jack Wilshere.

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Walcott

 

Both players had seasons ruined by injury but both were excellent in Arsenal’s final game of the Premier League season, Walcott scoring a hat-trick against West Bromwich Albion. Neither is expected to start at Wembley but Wenger was quick to insist this week that they both remain an important part of his plans.

He pointed to last year’s final, when Wilshere did not start but provided the spark from the bench to win the game in extra-time.

“Most of the time the heroes are the guys who come on,” he said. “Last year I brought on [Tomas] Rosicky and Wilshere. After the guys told me [that] when they came on they knew Hull didn’t have a chance any more. It is a squad achievement.”

So when asked about suggestions Wilshere does not feel wanted, Wenger defended himself. “We have always extended his contract and we have been very patient with all his injuries,” he said. “We always stood by him through every difficult moments.”

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Jack Wilshere celebrates his final-day strike

 

There is a question over Walcott’s future now – he has one year left on his contract – but Wenger said again that he “wants to play him through the middle” if he can stay fit.

That is unlikely to be on Saturday and is more of a long-term plan. Retaining the FA Cup is important, but Wenger  is always focused on what comes next.

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